Summary: The trials of a formerly retired superheroine are destined never to be done, especially when the heroine in question was foolish enough to agree to serve the seasonal lands...
Once again, Velveteen woke to find herself staring at the rotting rafters of a decaying house. There was a bat sleeping there, suspended upside-down like a little velvet sachet. As she watched, it woke, yawned, stretched out its bony wings, and launched itself into the air, flying silently out the open window. Velveteen sat up, and looked down at herself, more out of habit than anything else. Her skin was still a patchwork landscape of brown velvet and patterned swaths of whatever fabric had been handy when she needed to be repaired; looking at the patches carefully, she could see that they corresponded to every serious injury she’d ever sustained in the course of her heroic duties. The body had remembered, even when there had been no scars, and those old battle wounds had translated themselves onto the thing she was now. She still wasn’t wearing any clothes. As a living doll, she supposed she didn’t really need them. That didn’t stop her from feeling naked.
No sooner had the thought formed than the closet door swung open, revealing a lacy, tattered black dress hanging on the inside. Like her skin, it was patched in places, with bat-patterned orange cotton, green-and-purple muslin, and even a few swaths of brown velvet, rescued from the rag bag that had never really existed after her injuries had seen it trimmed away. Like Spring, Autumn was spinning a whole past for her, making it like she’d always been here.
“Hailey said I would get to choose for myself what I wanted to be, assuming I decided to stay here,” she said. Scream Queen wasn’t in the room--not unless the matriarch of Halloween could turn herself invisible, which was a thought Velveteen didn’t exactly feel like dwelling on--but the odds were good that she knew everything that happened in her season. Persephone and Aurora both had. So Velveteen glared at the ceiling for a moment, hoping it would get her point across. Then she got off the bed, and walked to the closet, and took the dress.
It fit like it had been made for her, which made sense: it had been made for her, called out of the substance of the season as soon as she realized that she wanted clothes. It was more childish than anything she would have worn at home, but that made sense too, because it was a dress for the body she currently inhabited, and the body she currently inhabited was human only in the vaguest of senses. What would have seemed awkward and wrong on her normal figure was...well, still wrong, but more creepy than awkward.
“I never wanted to be a terrifying murder doll, you know,” she said. The room did nothing to indicate, one way or another, whether it did, in fact, know. Velveteen sighed. “And by the time I get out of here, I’m going to be talking to myself constantly. This just gets better and better.”
With the bat gone, she was alone in the room. Velveteen glared one last time at the mirror on the wall, and turned to head for the door. Time to find Hailey again, and find out what, exactly, her last period of service was going to entail. One way or another, this was coming to an end.
Since the connection between our world and the Seasonal Lands became clear, steps have been taken to try to match those individuals known to dwell in the individual seasons with the people who they may have been prior to their choosing a life of metaphor and symbol over one lived in the normal manner, one day after another, leading inevitably to death.
In some cases, the origins of these figures are shrouded by both the time since they were first encountered, and by the distinct possibility that they are titles as much as individuals. Take the man we now know as “Santa Claus.” It was a shock when he first appeared at the 1953 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, descending from the sky in his reindeer-driven sleigh, distributing presents to all the individuals who had come to watch the floats go by. He was accompanied during that first appearance by a slender, blue-skinned man who we would all come to know as “Jack Frost,” and by a beautiful, icy woman who answered only to the title “Snow Queen.” All three represented figures from folklore and myth, although Santa seemed uncannily similar to the images commissioned by the Coca Cola company in the 1930s. While no earlier images exist of his companions, there are sketches and paintings of “Santa Claus” going back centuries. Comparison of these images seems to suggest the existence of at least three individuals using the name “Santa Claus,” following each other sequentially.
What happened to these earlier Santas? How were their replacements chosen, and how were they groomed for their jobs? What of Mrs. Claus? If new Santas are chosen following the death or retirement of the old, it would stand to reason that those new holders of the holiday office might well want to bring their own wives, their own families, into the Seasonal Lands. Or is theirs a marriage of mythology, something which cares nothing for the individuals involved, but only for their place in the story? The daughter of the current Santa Claus, Jacqueline, is rumored to have been adopted, which would fit well with her role in the holiday, but does not clarify the nature of his wife’s connection to either him or to the season itself.
If there are this many mysteries about Santa Claus, whose own child has been a frequent visitor to our world since she began her association with the heroes code named “Velveteen” and “The Princess,” then it must be acknowledged that the mysteries surrounding the other denizens of the Seasonal Lands are even deeper and more difficult to untangle. Take, for example, the rumored ruler of Halloween, the never-seen, rarely spoken-of “Scream Queen.”
According to those individuals who have traveled into the holiday and returned with skins and sanity intact, Scream Queen is the one who chooses the treats, decides the tricks, and sets the traps. It is her word that keeps the terrifying mechanisms of her holiday in motion. But who is she? Some of the earliest accounts of Halloween as a place, dismissed at the time as flights of fancy and outright lies, mention a woman who stood shielded by the corn and watched over all. The name given for her, however, is “Halloween Princess,” a role which we now know to be held by Hailey Ween (a girl whose origins are, as of this writing, still unclear). The physical descriptions for this Halloween Princess do not match the descriptions given of Hailey Ween: Hailey is Caucasian, blonde, sixteen. The Halloween Princess in the older tales is African-American, black haired, somewhere in her twenties. Her given name has never been recorded.
It seems reasonable to assume that whoever the Scream Queen is, she is not Hailey Ween, and while she may have been the Halloween Princess once, she has long since moved past that role. What she is now, we have no reasonable way of knowing.
As before, the stairs creaked but did not give way as Velveteen descended; as before, the bannister squished under her fingers, like she was gripping a rotten, slippery rat’s tail rather than a piece of curving wood. There were fewer cobwebs this time, probably because she had already walked through so many of the damn things that the spiders were working overtime to get them back in place. She kept her head held high and tried not to focus on the distant feeling that the house was breathing all around her, that if she opened enough doors she would eventually find the one that concealed a broken, beating heart.
“You’re supposed to be mine, you know,” she said, addressing the air. Halloween was definitely going to be the season of talking to herself. “That’s why you have a face: so you can be mine. So it would be awesome if you’d stop working quite so hard to creep me the fuck out, okay? Okay. Glad we had this talk.”
It might have been her imagination, but it felt like the air lightened after that. She smiled to herself as she finished her descent, and stopped at the bottom, smile fading. She was feeling triumph because...what, exactly? Because she’d managed to convince a haunted house to be a little bit less haunted, at least in her direction?
Her powers fit best in Spring. She had been cultivated by Winter. Autumn had always done its best to push her away in the process of pulling her closer, but at the end of the day, she fit best in the season of dead leaves and jack-o-lanterns. Maybe she could have grown up to be a perfect Spirit of some other Season, but those were the versions of herself that had never been allowed to exist. She was who she was, and who she was was the sort of girl who was better equipped to yell at haunted houses than she was to hide eggs or fill stockings.
The thought was unsettling enough that she finished her walk to the front door in silence, opening it to reveal the graveyard outside, and Hailey and Scaredy once again having a picnic on a fallen tomb door. They both raised their heads and looked around at the sound of her footsteps on the porch. Hailey offered a brief salute with a piece of pumpkin bread. Scaredy wrinkled his nose into something between a snarl and a sneer, and went back to shoving gummi worms into his mouth.
At least Velveteen thought they were gummi worms. All things considered, she didn’t want to ask. “Do you people not have homes?” she asked instead, crossing her arms and glowering in their general direction. “I’m not running a flophouse here.”
“Sure you’re running a flophouse,” said Hailey cheerily. “You have no bones; you live here for right now; you’re floppy; ergo, this is a flophouse.”
Velveteen stared at her. “That’s...that’s not how words work,” she said finally. “The language police are going to come and take you away, and I’m not going to say a damn thing in your defense.”
“Au contraire, my ragdoll fair: you’re in Halloween now, and this is exactly how words work on this side of the graveyard gate.” Hailey slid nimbly down from her tombstone perch, pausing to smooth her green and orange tulle skirt with the heels of her hands before trotting across the yard to where Velveteen waited. She stopped at the base of the porch steps, offering a shy smile upward.
For the first time, Velveteen--who had first met Hailey Ween when sixteen was a foreign country, far away, exotic, and filled with promises she hoped puberty was intending to keep--was struck by how young she was. Hailey had been sixteen, or maybe even younger, when she had climbed out of her bedroom window and followed an avatar of Halloween into metaphor, and further onward, into eternity. She had never grown all the way up, never loved someone enough to hold their hands under a harvest moon, never known what she was giving away. Or maybe she had, and she just hadn’t seen it as important enough to mourn for.
“What?” demanded Velveteen, more harshly than she intended. She didn’t want to be feeling sorry for Hailey. She couldn’t afford to start feeling sorry for Hailey. This was her last Season, and she. Was going. Home.
“Trick or treat,” said Hailey, voice sweet as Halloween candy and twice as likely to conceal a razor blade.
“What do you think I am, stupid?” asked Velveteen. “Treat.”
“Wonderful,” said Hailey, smiling that too-white, too-sharp smile of hers before spinning on her heel and striking out across the graveyard, beckoning for Velveteen to follow. “Hurry, hurry! There’s much to do before the sun goes down, and you don’t want to make Scream Queen angry!”
Velveteen didn’t remember much about her brief encounter with Halloween’s guardian Spirit, but what little she did remember made her certain that Hailey was telling nothing but the truth. Repressing the urge to swear, she jumped down from the porch, her fabric knees absorbing the impact with ease, and ran after the Halloween Princess, into the cornfield beyond the yard.
Scaredy stayed where he was, and reached for another fistful of candy. His part would come soon enough. No point in wasting a good picnic on something that he didn’t need to do.
On the other side of the graveyard was a crumbling country road, the sort of thing that’s made an appearance in a hundred horror movies and a few thousand American gothic novels. It was a Stephen King road, a Ray Bradbury road, and the second Velveteen saw it, she knew that she was not going to enjoy what came next. She stopped at the edge of the road. Hailey continued on, to the ditch on the other side, where she began unearthing a bicycle from the weeds. She looked back when she realized that Vel was no longer following her.
“Well?” she asked. “Come on.”
“No, thanks,” said Velveteen. “I’m good here.”
Hailey sighed and rolled her eyes, the very picture of a Halloween babysitter trying to cajole her charges into going on a fun adventure. Everything she’d said about being the cool kid who still went out into the graveyards was starting to make sense. “You’re here to serve the Season, Velveteen, or do you need Scream Queen to give you a little reminder? Just come with me. I’m not going to hurt you. We’re on the same team this time.”
“You’ve tried to trap me in Halloween before,” said Velveteen, finally taking a cautious step out onto the road. It held her weight. Roads usually did, but after three Seasons in a row, she wasn’t feeling very trustful about that sort of thing.
“Well, sure,” said Hailey. She pulled the bike out of the ditch and brushed the last of the grass off of it. The frame was rusty and the handlebars looked like a tetanus shot waiting to happen, but the tires were sound and fully inflated. “I wanted to keep you, you didn’t want to stay. But this time, the rules are different. This time, you might choose us. So I’ve been ordered to play nicely, and I’m your best friend until the clock strikes twelve and you have to pick a side.”
“What happens if I don’t pick you?” Velveteen peered into the ditch, and was unsurprised to find a second bike there, caught in the weeds. She leaned over and began excavating it, grimacing as the briars snagged in the fabric of her hands.
“No clue,” said Hailey. “Hopefully, we’re not going to find out.”
She was smiling that toothy, too-white smile when Velveteen looked over at her. Vel shuddered and went back to digging out her bike.
Once she had it free, and reasonably denuded of weeds, she propped it up and slung her leg over the seat. Hailey nodded approvingly and pushed off; Vel did the same, and together they rode down the long, pothole-spotted country road, with fields of wheat and corn waving gently at them from either side. The landscape of Halloween changed to suit its current needs, from the Gothic to the pastoral and back again. It was not the sort of place that could be accused of being static, or boring. It was just itself, whatever that entailed at the time.
They road until the shadows stretched long around them. Velveteen was pleased to discover that the changes to her body--and her current lack of a skeletal system--didn’t interfere with her riding a bike. Some skills, it seemed, just crossed over.
Hailey pulled off to the side of the road and stopped her bike, prompting Velveteen to do the same. Then Hailey waved a hand grandly at the large cornfield in front of them. “Ta-da,” she said.
Velveteen frowned. “Congratulations,” she said, after a moment. “You’ve found corn. I don’t think that’s hard around here. Halloween seems to have a weird corn fetish, and to be honest, I find it all a little bit disturbing. Which hell, may be what you were going for in the first place. Who am I to judge?”
“We like corn because corn is a symbol, and also because corn is fucking delicious,” said Hailey. “Corn is awesome. But cornfields...there’s power in cornfields. They’re a whole different sort of symbol. Every cornfield we have means something else. There are cornfields people get wished into and cornfields that people run away in. There are cornfields haunted by slasher killers, and cornfields with bad infestations of children with hair like silk and eyes like a crime scene. This cornfield is one of the symbolic ones. Every ear of corn that grows here represents a good Halloween experience a child had the last time our holiday actually rolled around.”
“Huh,” said Velveteen. She gave the cornfield another, longer look. “That’s a lot of corn.”
“Halloween is important to a lot of people. Good adult experiences go into one of our apple orchards. They make the sweetest cider that you’ve ever tasted. But see, harvest happens after a year’s growth, regardless of age. Can’t have the really good memories of a holiday until that holiday comes around again. And we’ve got a problem.” Hailey’s expression hardened. “There are crows in the corn.”
“Crows in the corn.”
“So you brought me, a woman made of fabric, to scare the crows that are eating your good memory corn. Wow. It’s like I’m some sort of...huh. There must be a word for something shaped like a human that you use to scare the crows.” Velveteen folded her arms and glared at Hailey.
Hailey rolled her eyes. “Oh no, you came to a world that flat-out refers to itself as a metaphor and somehow things have gotten all symbolic. How did that happen? I do not know. Look, I can be as sarcastic as you. Doesn’t change what we’re here to do, so maybe let’s stop, okay? I have shit to do. So do you.”
“Because you need me to fight the crows that are in your corn,” said Velveteen.
“Yup,” said Hailey. “See, bad Halloween memories have wings. They’re here to eat what they can’t become, and the more they eat, the more people forget what they love about Halloween. We need kids to keep loving Halloween when they’re young, because that’s what powers the less likely to murder everybody on sight aspects of our holiday. You’re really doing a public service.”
“By fighting the crows that are in your corn.”
“Precisely.” Hailey’s expression turned grave. “This is part of how the servants of this Season work to protect us all. I’d like to stay here and enjoy more of your pathetic attempts to make me feel bad about our metaphors, but I need to go chase the owls out of the orchard. The crows are your concern, at least for tonight.”
“But I don’t know how to fight crows,” said Velveteen helplessly. “What do you want me to do, shout ‘boo’ and hope they’ll scatter?”
“No,” said Hailey. “I want you to kill them.”
Velveteen looked at the corn. She had the distinct feeling that the corn was looking back, taking her measure even as she was taking its. Hailey was gone, off to protect the orchards: her parting words had been a muttered warning about being back on the road by midnight, since the corn had “other defenses” once the moon was high enough. Velveteen had no real idea of what those “other defenses” might be, and more importantly, she had no desire to learn. Being an animus had taught her that everything had teeth. Sometimes those teeth were hidden, but that didn’t change their reality. She had absolute faith that the cornfield was dangerous, and not to be trifled with.
She also hadn’t seen a single crow, standing on the road as she was, which made her suspect that the only way to protect the corn was to go into the corn.
“I hate this holiday,” she announced, to no one in particular, and stepped into the green.
The change was immediate. There was no way the road should have dropped behind her so quickly, but it did: with a single step, she was lost in a sea of cornstalks, surrounded on all sides. They were all tall, stretching two to four feet above her head, but that was where the similarity ended. Some of the stalks were fresh and green, barely putting forth ears. Others were golden and dry, already harvested. Still more were fully mature, heavy with corn, ready for the picking.
“Okay, this is weird,” said Velveteen, turning slowly. Cornhusks crunched underfoot. Everything smelled like chlorophyll. And then, in the middle of her turn, she found her first crow.
She froze. So did the bird. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, exactly, but it wasn’t this...this thing, which bore a resemblance to the glossy black birds she sometimes saw back home in Portland only in the sense that it was large, black, and covered with feathers. Apart from that...
It had a jagged, tooth-filled beak, more like a small dinosaur than a normal bird. Its talons were abnormally long, almost tiny, scaled hands, and looked perfectly capable of husking an ear of corn without trouble. And it had a single red eye with a snake-slit pupil in the middle of its skull, which looked at her with an eerie intelligence.
“Um,” said Velveteen.
“Caw,” said the crow, and launched itself into the air, talons angled toward her face. Velveteen had time to see that it had a long, scaly tail, like some sort of lizard, before self-preservation took over and she hit the ground. When she lifted her face out of the corn husks, she saw the crow flying off with an ear of corn clutched in its talons, crowing triumphantly. Before that moment, she wouldn’t have said that a bird could sound smug. This one did. Smug, and nasty, and maybe a little bit malicious. Maybe a lot malicious.
Then the sky turned black with beating wings, and the harsh caws of the crows drowned out everything else, and Velveteen realized that this job was considerably larger than she had expected.
“Fuck. Me,” she said, and turned and fled into the corn, looking for a place where she could hunker down and come up with a plan. Waving her arms and screaming wasn’t going to cut it, she could tell that for damn sure; these were not crows that gave a single fuck about being yelled at. They were out for blood, or at least for corn, and if she got in their way, they were going to rip her to pieces. Serving the Season was one thing--she had signed up for that--but dying for it? Oh, that was something else altogether, and if that was what Halloween wanted from her, Halloween was going to be deeply disappointed.
The direction she was running should have brought her back to the road. It didn’t. instead, it brought her more corn, until she ran into a clear patch that had already been harvested. The stalks here were crushed flat, and the sky overhead was mostly empty, since there was nothing here for the crows to steal. She stopped, wheezing and trying not to think about how a rag doll that walked like a woman could be short of breath. Everything here was a metaphor. Pick at it too much and it would come apart at the seams.
“Okay, fuck, crows,” she said, putting her hand against a convenient pole as she wheezed. Then she stopped, looking up, and met the eyes of the disemboweled scarecrow that dangled there. It was impossible to tell whether it had originally been an animated doll, like she was; it didn’t matter much, since the thing was clearly not animated now. It was a dead thing, and looking at it made her shudder.
But it was a dead thing with a face, and while she had never become Roadkill in her timeline, she knew full well that she was capable of animating dead things.
Getting the scarecrow down from its post was harder than she had expected, and several times she had to swallow the urge to just wake it up and tell it to get down on its own. Without knowing how it was suspended, that could easily have ended in the scarecrow ripping itself limb from limb as it tried to follow her orders. That wouldn’t have been helpful, especially not when she needed it relatively intact to fight for her. So she climbed and she slid and she struggled and she unhooked, until finally the scarecrow fell to the ground, leaving her hanging from the crossbar that had held its arms in position.
“This was a brilliant plan and I am a genius for having it,” she said, deadpan. Narrowing her eyes, she focused on the scarecrow. She hadn’t actually tried to use her powers since arriving in Autumn this time, and after her experiences in Spring and Winter, she was a little worried about what would happen. Indeed, it felt like the “reach” that always accompanied an animation came easier than it ever had before, accompanied by the tiny sensation of loss that she now recognized as the expenditure of her own energy. The deep wellspring of power that had always been her own was back now; she didn’t have to be a vampire. The relief that accompanied that realization was so intense that she nearly lost her grip on the crossbar.
Only nearly. She held on, and the scarecrow staggered to its feet, possessing none of her grace, moving with the uneasy bend of straw and canvas and severely damaged fabric. It tilted its painted face blindly toward her, its one remaining button eye glinting in the light. There wasn’t that much of a difference between snowmen and scarecrows, when you got right down to it. Both of them were inanimate, humanoid, and hers.
“Catch me,” she said, and let go of the crossbar before she could change her mind. If the scarecrow didn’t move fast enough, well. She was made of cloth at the moment. She would probably be fine. Probably.
The scarecrow caught her. Velveteen beamed.
“You are the most useful person I’ve met since I got here,” she said. “Put me down.”
The scarecrow put her down. It took a shambling step back, giving her some space. Velveteen wasn’t sure whether it had done that on its own or because she wanted room to breathe, and it didn’t really matter. Her toys had always been better at controlling their own actions than anyone expected them to be. As long as they still did as she asked, she didn’t mind.
“We’re going to fight the army of crows that tore you open,” she said. The scarecrow tilted its head, seeming obscurely disappointed. She swallowed the urge to apologize. “Anyway, we need more of an army if we want to take them out without winding up in a million pieces. Have you ever made a cornhusk doll?”
The scarecrow had not. The scarecrow was, however, willing to learn. Velveteen couldn’t have said how she knew this; she just did. She grinned.
“Great,” she said. “Let’s get cracking.”
Gathering cornhusks was easy, even with the crows glutting themselves in the field. The clearing had plenty, and when those started running low, Velveteen ducked into the nearby green and grabbed great fistfuls of leaves and husks from the ground and from the already-denuded cornstalks. A few crow sentries spotted her and cawed loudly, summoning reinforcements, but Velveteen kept low and moved fast, and none of the flocks managed to descend on her before she could retreat to a safe distance again.
“I would kill for someone with animal-control powers right now,” she said, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the clearing and beginning to twist cornhusks together, forming the shape of a crude doll. The scarecrow sat beside her, mimicking her motions as well as it could. Its hands were twigs, skeletal and clumsy, but they bent like fingers, thanks to the power she was pumping through its body, and while it wasn’t fast, it was better by far than nothing. “I mean, get Cinder or Monstrosity or Jack Daw out here and we could clear this problem up in no time flat. Halloween needs to network better.”
The scarecrow didn’t say anything. The scarecrow just kept making corn dolls. Velveteen gave it a sidelong look.
“You were a scarecrow when you started, right?” she asked. “I mean, you were always a scarecrow, you’re not somebody who got turned into a scarecrow? Because I’m not really in the business of animating corpses, when I can help it. It never ends well.” Her mind helpfully supplied her with an image of Tag, sleeping in his glass coffin back in The Princess’s castle. Velveteen resisted the urge to punch her own brain in the face.
The scarecrow’s face was paint and a button on canvas; it didn’t have expressions, as such. Somehow, it still managed to give her an amused look before it shook its head. It had always been a scarecrow, said the motion; it had never wanted to be anything else. It hadn’t wanted to be abandoned and torn apart by crows, either, but what could you do? Sometimes the story went to uncomfortable places.
“Oh, good,” said Velveteen, and reached for another handful of corn husks. The two of them worked in silence for a while, with her producing three cornhusk dollies for every one the scarecrow completed. Those slow additions added up, and when her questing hand found that their pile of cornhusks had been utterly depleted, there were piles of dollies around them, heaped high.
Velveteen stood. “Okay,” she said, looking at the scarecrow. “If I fall down, you catch me. Get me out of the corn if you can. I’ll try to keep animating you until I can’t anymore. Got it?”
The scarecrow nodded.
“Awesome. Here we go.” She turned to the piled-up dollies. They were humanoid in only the barest of senses: they had cornhusk legs, cornhusk arms, and smiling little faces poked into their heads with nails Vel had pried from the base of the scarecrow’s perch. They were humanoid enough. Velveteen reached and they responded, sitting up, looking around, and finally helping one another to their cornhusk feet. A hundred or more silently smiling faces looked at her, waiting.
It was like something out of a horror movie. Velveteen resisted the urge to shudder. She was like something out of a horror movie, at least right now. This was where she belonged, until it was all over. Until she could go home.
“There are crows in the corn,” she said. “I know you grew here: this is your home. I know that once, you sheltered the good Halloween memories of children. And I know that many of you fell because of those same crows. They stole the memories you were supposed to protect. This is your chance to get revenge. This is your chance to do for someone else what no one was willing to do for you. Are you with me?”
They were. Every last one of them. They grabbed nails and sticks from the ground, arming themselves for the fight that was to come. Then, silent, they swarmed into the corn with Velveteen and the scarecrow close behind. It was time to fight, and win, or lose, as the season decreed.
The crows were not expecting an assault. That was clear from the way Velveteen and her makeshift army found them, perched on the cornstalks, glutting themselves sick on the memories that grew, golden and sweet, around them. What’s more, the crows were not expecting an assault that came on like a wave, silent, swift, and terrible. The corn dollies were light enough that they could swarm straight up the corn, attacking whatever they found there. They were merciless with their borrowed weapons. They were fearless in their fury. What did it matter if one of them fell, when three more would be closing in right behind?
The crows shrieked and cawed, ripping corn dollies from themselves, beating them away with their wings. The corn dollies kept coming, driving their sticks into crow eyes, stabbing their nails into crow flesh. Whenever one of the dollies was caught it would come apart in a shower of husks and silk. Velveteen raced between the stalks, filling her hands with fresh husks and shaping more dollies, waking them and sending them into the fray. Every “death” hurt her a little, but it returned that doll’s energy to the well she was using to power them; as long as their numbers stayed roughly constant, she would have the strength to keep rebuilding her army.
Crows shrieked. Dolls disintegrated. It was a holding action: there were always more dolls, but there were always more crows as well, reinforcements summoned by the dismay of their fellows. Midnight was coming, and Hailey’s warning was beginning to echo in her ears: she didn’t want to be there when Halloween’s defenses kicked in.
But there was still something she could do, even if she didn’t want to. Something that would turn the tide. Velveteen sunk to her knees in the green, green ground, closed her eyes, and reached.
The crows that had fallen twitched. They twisted. And they rose on black-feathered wings, taking back the sky, silent now, flying for someone else. On the ground, Velveteen slumped forward, hands digging into the soil, head bowed. She was pouring everything she had into the crows, into the dolls, into the sky. This was too much for her. She knew that it was too much for her, and still she kept pushing, driving her reanimated crows higher, chasing the living vermin from the skies she had been tasked with protecting.
The scarecrow moved to stand behind her, unbidden by any conscious thought. The dollies struck down more crows, only for their corpses to rise and join the fight against their fellows. Velveteen’s nose began to bleed. She might have been relieved to see that, if she’d been more aware. Something that could bleed wasn’t entirely made of cloth and rags; something that could bleed still had a heart. But all her attention was reserved for other matters.
The surviving crows turned and fled, leaving the cornfield for something safer, someplace less filled with their silent dead.
Velveteen collapsed, and corn dollies and dead crows fell around her like rain.
Hailey was waiting when the scarecrow carried Velveteen out of the corn, cradled gently against its chest. She looked at it. It looked at her. Then, slowly, she smiled.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” she asked. “Cool. Just get her home.”
The teenage spirit of Halloween slung her leg over her bike and rode away down the endless country road, lit from above by a midnight harvest moon. Behind her walked the scarecrow, Velveteen sleeping peacefully in its arms.